Trudeau the Quant – “Deliverology” and the limits of data-driven governance

Image description: Justin Trudeau, in a grey jacket and white button-down shirt, stands by the side of a four-lane street, his mouth open, his brow slightly furrowed. (Image credit: Alex Guibord)

Image description: Justin Trudeau, pictured from the waist up wearing a grey pinstripe jacket and white button-down shirt, stands by the side of a four-lane Toronto street, his mouth open, his brow slightly furrowed. (Image credit: Alex Guibord)

The CBC is reporting that Sir Michael Barber, one-time “Chief Advisor on Delivery” to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is once against providing advice to the cabinet of Justin Trudeau at a retreat.

Barber first addressed the neophyte-heavy cabinet in New Brunswick in January, instructing the politicians on a delivery-focussed method for ensuring that the new government would be able to keep its promises.

If you’re unfamiliar with Michael Butler, well, lucky you.

Barber moves in a world where Newspeaky neoliberal jargon is the lingua franca; a self-described “educationist”, Barber is most famous for his administrative philosophy, “Deliverology”, and he is the author of an entire book on the topic of “efficacy”.

The essence of Barber’s thought is neatly encapsulated in a quote on his LinkedIn: “Delivery Associates has been established to improve the effectiveness and accountability of government worldwide; that is the capacity of governments to deliver, and to be seen to deliver, benefits that benefit citizens [redundancy sic] without overburdening them with taxes. We believe this is one of the most important moral purposes of our time.”

Yes, you read that correctly. In a world where refugees are allowed to drown by the thousands for lack of political will to save them, where poverty is a leading cause of death, where the perpetuation of historical injustices continues to be a major source of profitability, where a person’s race or gender or sexual orientation or physical ability still goes such a long way to determining their quality of life, Barber has singled out the capacity of governments to deliver services efficiently as “one of the most important moral purposes of our time”.

This essentially amoral mode of thinking is only possible if one is focussed more on process than on outcome. And indeed, “Deliverology” seems to consist of little more than breaking broad, overarching goals down into small, quantifiable steps, and then repeatedly checking in to make sure that progress is being made along this pre-defined path. Success is therefore defined in terms of the achievement of these steps, rather than on the merits of the initial goal.

Furthermore, “Deliverology”, with its “delivery culture”, has an innate and unfounded bias towards the quantifiable. If you can count it, measure it, and put it in a chart or graph, then Deliverology-minded ministers and civil servants are going to gravitate towards it. Priorities which can’t be readily turned into data are inevitably going to fall by the wayside.

We can see indications of this tendency in the government’s handling of the Saudi arms deal. It’s simple to calculate the costs of cancelling the controversial deal, both in terms of dollars and of jobs lost. What is far more amorphous – though no less real – is the loss of Canadian credibility on human rights issues.

Similarly, on the pipeline file, we see the argument coming out of anonymous high-level sources again and again that if Canada doesn’t export oil, some other country will. This obviously fallacious line of reasoning could only emerge from a perspective more firmly rooted in data than in logic. It’s easy enough to do a cost/benefit analysis on the potential return of pipeline construction based on projected prices of crude bitumen on the international market, but this exercise puts us firmly into the realm of extrapolatory fantasy.

This also points to the recentism inherent in data-driven approaches; even though nations around the world are moving away from the production and use of fossil fuels, this trend is not yet reflected in the data, and so cannot be factored into the government’s calculations. Given that they can only see where they’re going by looking backwards, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Trudeau government has thus far retreaded the disastrous policies of the Harper regime.

All of this is not to say that an emphasis on data is entirely detrimental. The new government has, after all, reversed the Harper regime’s dismantling of the long-form census, a vital tool for planners and policymakers. The main detriment of an entirely data-driven approach isn’t that data is inherently bad; it’s that there are many laudable and important goals a government can pursue which are partially or entirely unquantifiable.

Look at Trudeau’s father’s pursuit of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. How can one hope to measure the worth of that document? How would Trudeau père have instructed his cabinet to measure and chart their progress towards achieving it? Or how could we quantify the absence of Québec’s signature on the Canadian constitution, and the consequences of that absence for questions of national unity and French-Canadian nationalism?

Take the goal, espoused by Trudeau fils, of respecting Indigenous sovereignty. How is that respect to be measured, that sovereignty to be quantified? What can be measured – the number and duration of high-level meetings and consultations, the approximate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the frequency of suicide attempts on First Nations reserves – can only ever tell a partial story, by nature incomplete. How in the hell do you break down the task of reconciliation with the survivors of a centuries-long state-sanctioned genocide into small, measurable, quantifiable interim goals?

Quite simply, you don’t. To attempt to do so is to violently subvert the very concept of reconciliation.

Barber’s influence in Ottawa is part of a mass migration of political “talent” from Queen’s Park, all of whom applied his Deliverological philosophy to Ontario’s provincial government. Matthew Mendelsohn, Trudeau’s deputy secretary responsible for results and delivery, has been given a role which parallels Barber’s role in Blair’s government. He is described by the Ottawa Citizen as “the latest of the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne brain trust to head to Ottawa and join the Trudeau government.” Mendelsohn, along with Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and his chief of staff, Katie Telford (both Queen’s Park veterans), is described as being deeply influenced by Barber’s approach to governance.

The obvious objection one could raise here is that the McGuinty/Wynne years haven’t exactly been noteworthy for the scale or ambition of their accomplishments. The Ontario Liberal Party hasn’t done an especially fantastic job of keeping election promises. In many ways, quality of life for Ontarians – especially low-income Ontarians – has declined over the last thirteen years. And, of course, both McGuinty and Wynne have been beset by serious scandals which call into question their integrity and honesty.

Similarly, Blair’s government ended in a slow-motion implosion in the mid-2000s, and gave way to both electoral loss and a splintering of the Labour Party that is still unresolved nearly a decade later.

On the other hand, the McGuinty/Wynne Liberals won four consecutive elections, while the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown Labourites won three – accomplishments for any party, anywhere. No one can pretend that’s not a factor in Trudeau’s efforts to emulate their successes, despite the fact that the situations are not completely isomorphic. If Trudeau thinks that Butler’s approach will increase his chances for reelection, it’s no wonder he’s pushing it so hard.

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